After an announcer acknowledged the indigenous people of the area to set a tone of locality and identity, writer, educator, organizer and Western alum Romeo Romero Sigle approached the Underground Coffeehouse stage on Nov. 19.
Sigle did so with a smile and a colloquial tone, like a friend who had read poetry there a million times.
Which is not untrue, Sigle said, acknowledging the five-year gap since they had performed in the coffeehouse.
“I don’t usually sit, but there’s a chair. I’m gonna move it,” they said.
Then, Sigle began reading their poetry. Immediately, they forged a harsh juxtaposition from their informal tone with a series of dark, powerful statements surrounding topics of being trans and a person of color, the struggles of constant migrating and sexual assault.
Audience members seemed to attune to a certain unapologetic strength to Sigle’s poetry.
First-year student Autumn Fivecoats was in the coffeehouse studying at the time of the event. Fivecoats said it was a pleasant surprise, and said the subject matter felt especially refreshing in Bellingham.
“Having someone speak on those topics through poetry is very powerful and probably needed here,” Fivecoats said. “The fact that there is a space to do that, and people are really open minded about it, I think it’s really cool.”
Some of the poems Sigle read had formerly been in Western publications, they said. Most came from their debut book, Descendent, which came out last June.
“I did a book launch where I live now, in Massachusetts,” Sigle said. “but it feels very important that I bring this book home to where a lot of it was born.”
According to Sigle, much of the poetry in Descendent was written during their time at Western. They said they lived in Bellingham from ages 16 to 20 before majoring in queer and ethnic studies through Fairhaven College.
Though they have many homes, Bellingham is an important one, Sigle said.
The Massachusetts book launch was meaningful because of the close community that showed up, Sigle said. While they might not relate to the ever-changing Bellingham community as much anymore, they found it an equally important place to perform.
“Since leaving I’ve really manifested who I wanted to be,” Sigle said. “So coming back as the person I was always trying to fight for and be like ‘I made this happen,’ even though there was a lot here that was trying to keep that from happening.”
While art and poetry weren’t explicitly part of their education in Fairhaven, Sigle said they found themselves incorporating those same devices in their academic work. Further, they said their time at Western helped formed their poetic persona.
“Connecting my college experience and identity development with poetry made a lot of sense for me to sift through,” Sigle said. “Especially because I’m a person with so many complicated identities—I’m mixed-race, I’m queer, I’ve lived in multiple spaces, so it’s hard to know ‘Who am I?’ when there are so many people trying to tell me who I am.”
Much of Sigle’s performance is based on topics of identity and self-discovery. This is a universal idea, they said, as everyone is looking for that place and person where they can be their whole and most true self.
“I’m looking for people to see me and all of my complexity, and I’m hoping people might see themselves reflected in that,” Sigle said. “It’s OK to brilliantly and boldly hold onto every part of who you are and let that shine in every space you enter.”
Fifth-year student Daniella Navarro met Sigle her first year at Western. She said she cherished the performance because she could see how Sigle had grown over the time they’d been away.
Navarro said Sigle’s performance was vital to the Western community.
“[At] Western in general you get one idea about the education system, and I think spaces like this kind of disrupt that,” she said.
Sigle is heavily involved in activism in their town, they said, through youth organization in schools and finding alternative solutions to violence.
“I think they bring a different perspective and make it really important to hear,” Navarro said. “I feel like talking about queer people, people with Latinx identities, people who have Jewish identities, there’s not a lot of that and so this is a great example of representation.”
Prioritizing art and social justice has been something Sigle has struggled with. For a long time, they swore off poetry so it wouldn’t detract from the social work.
Now they’re expressing a new idea, one where building a world they want to live in must be done through writing and creating art. There is room for both, they said.
“I want people to be able to engage in this world-building,” Sigle said. “We are creating liberation in the way that we think and dream and feel.”